Washington County Commissioner Greg Malinowski is led by environmental concerns, square peg in a rou
Note: This is one of six candidate profiles I wrote ahead of the Washington County elections in 2014. Washington County is the fastest growing county in the Portland metro area, home to the Nike world headquarters and Intel's largest research center - as well as to a longstanding dispute between conservationists and land developers. Links to the other candidate profiles are at the end of the story.
WASHINGTON COUNTY (The Oregonian) — The south side of the Malinowski Farm in Bethany will soon be bordered by new development.
Washington County Commissioner Greg Malinowski and his two younger brothers grew up on this 60-acre plot. It's where they played and worked on their father's many projects. And it's where they kept up with the adventures of their neighbor Wilhelm, a German settler who refused to get a permit for his beehives and would ask the sheriff to take him to jail for a week at a time saying he was "tired of the wife's cooking."
Wilhelm's old farm is now giving way to single-family homes.
It's the type of change that has helped define Malinowski, spurring his interest in land-use issues as a teenager, his subsequent activity with Citizen Participation Organizations and, eventually, his run for public office.
Malinowski, 56, is seeking re-election in District 2, which represents the county's northeast corner, including Bethany, Cedar Hills, Cedar Mill, Raleigh Hills, Rock Creek and portions of Hillsboro and Beaverton. His challenger is university professor Bob Zahrowski, who says he wants to ensure the county makes the right decisions in managing growth.
A large part of the district is made of urban unincorporated areas, which rely on the county – rather than a city – for such services as sewer and roads. Malinowski has strong support from many in the community who say the commissioner carries their concerns at the county level.
"He's your guy next door," says Ruth Deal, a resident who has advocated for building sidewalks and safe routes to schools. "He shows up, he returns calls, he really reacts and listens very well. You're not getting the standard politician answers."
But commissioners say Malinowski can be hard to work with because he constantly criticizes the board's decisions, yet is not straightforward about what he wants.
"He has on at least three or four occasions voted in a public meeting for a particular issue, and shortly after gone out, talking to a fairly wide range of people, expressing the opposite opinion," said former Commissioner John Leeper.
Malinowski admits he was never much of a joiner, or too concerned about where the majority was leaning. "That might have bled into the politics," he says.
He wants everyone to understand the county needs to change its ways to avoid a major breakdown in quality of life. The county has a $2.6 billion backlog in transportation construction projects. Continuing new development without a decision on how to cover this backlog will lead to more congestion, pollution, sidewalk gaps and overcrowded schools, he says. Schools need to invest in buses rather than extra teachers because children who live near schools don't have sidewalks to walk on.
"All we're doing is taking the wealth that should have been used for (infrastructure) and giving it to people to take away. Kicking the can down the road," he says. "There's something wrong if we know in advance that we're making it a miserable place to live, and we just do it because we'll make more money that way."
The Malinowski brothers have organic cows, chickens and hay. That was not the case when they were growing up. Like many farmers in the 1960s, their father used pesticides.
At 20, Malinowski learned during a training session that anyone who handled chemicals ought to get a liver test every few years. He did and was shocked to learn the chemicals had badly damaged his liver. He refused to work with them on the farm. His younger brother took the work on, but he too got ill. That's when the brothers decided to find alternatives.
They tried it with strawberries, using a natural mold made from sugar instead of pesticides. It worked, so they gradually shifted completely to organic.
Organic crops and vegetables were rare in the early 1980s, popular mainly among environmentalists and hippies. Malinowski was no stranger to the former. He would religiously read Mother Earth News magazine, to the point where he built his house as an earth shelter, made of cement, steel and dirt. He still lives there with his wife, Jonella.
On their first date, Malinowski asked to stop by the county offices so he could drop off some land-use paperwork. He had become involved in such issues as a high school student, trying to prevent the family farm's inclusion in the Urban Growth Boundary; he was partially successful.
He went on to study electronics at Portland Community College and started a 30-year career at Tektronix, doing a variety of jobs including quality control.
At the same time, he became a fixture at CPO 7, where residents come together to address issues in their neighborhoods and communicate them to government.
In the late 1990s, he appealed a proposed UGB extension in North Bethany. Mary Kyle McCurdy, policy director and attorney at the land-use focused nonprofit 1000 Friends of Oregon, worked with Malinowski on that case. She says he was always well informed, articulate and a valuable resource for other residents.
Planning Commissioner Mary Manseau says Malinowski has always been driven by his care for the land. "He's an environmentalist," she says. "He's a property owner, a land owner, but he understands he's essentially a caretaker. It's his land now, but it's his responsibility that that land is in good or better shape as he passes it on."
In 2008, Malinowski lost his job at Tektronix and found work at a furniture store. Two years later, there was an opening on the county commission. He felt the CPO's work had been generally ignored or overturned at the county level, so he figured this was his opportunity to make a difference. He ran for office.
Malinowski has about 60 chickens on his farm that are either black, brown or barred rocks, depending on the year they were bought. He also has a white rooster.
A couple of years ago, neighbors in his district had complained about a noisy rooster. The offending bird, it turned out, was a girl's pet. Although her family agreed it needed to go, they wanted it to be safe. So Malinowski took it with him.
Malinowski probably shows up at community meetings more than any other commissioner, said Pacific University Professor Jim Moore. "He's learned how to work with the other commissioners to deliver services when there are ideological splits."
He is one of the more liberal-leaning commissioners, along with Dick Schouten. The other three commissioners are more conservative.
Malinowski says he makes practical, not ideological, decisions at the county. But he does have strong beliefs. At the top of that list is his conviction that the county has been exceedingly friendly to developers in the past few decades, and makes decisions that serve them instead of the general public.
"We worry an awful lot about the developer being able to sell his lots and not so much about the neighborhood we have to shovel a road through," he says.
In 2012, the county offered a $2.3 million loan to build a road in North Bethany that is usually paid for by developers. In March, commissioners extended a 20 percent discount on a tax on new development that brings in about $16 million a year. Malinowski and Schouten at first opposed the extension but ended up voting to approve it.
Commissioners said it was part of a negotiation to extend the discount over the summer construction season, but fully phase it in afterward.
Similarly, Malinowski said he voted to appropriate $20 million from the tax-sharing program Gain Share to build an events center and Veterans Memorial Plaza at the fairgrounds with the condition that funds also would be devoted to county buildings so they can withstand an earthquake. "It was a horse trade," he says.
As he navigates the political aspects of his job, questions remain as to how his community, and the county as a whole, will be changed by growth.
"There's just too much darn money involved," he says. "I've had people tell me, 'Just leave your farm in the middle of a city. It will be fine.' But if you drive toward Portland, you'll see there's not enough of that done."
The single-family units bordering Malinowski's farm will be up in a few months. But he says he doesn't want to change his life because of that. His 25 cows, including Noisy Guts, and his white rooster, will just have a few more neighbors.
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